He had not heeded her, that much was clear.
As soon as she had come back to awareness she felt different.
Eldared had once tried to explain to her the feeling of bonding—not the act that followed of course, as that was wholly private—but merely the startling awareness that a part of yourself now resided with another.
Mairi had not been able to comprehend what that could have meant, but now as she managed to sit up, hissing softly at the pain still residing deep within her shoulder, she knew that she had been sealed to this strange man.
She had been dreaming—a rarity for her kind. She saw her tree, tucked safely away behind the guarded barricade of the High City, and nestled beneath the towering maple of her father’s— a barren place beside it where her mother’s should have been as it had long since shrivelled away. She felt as a spectre, staring as her tree wasted away and what buds of new growth and flowers had finally begun to burst forth withered and fell to the forest floor.
And she had cried and wept for she knew that meant death, for it was tied to her as she was tied to it.
Her father had come and her pain only multiplied as she witnessed his grief, her usually stoic yet oh so kind father reduced to sobs as he knelt beneath the decaying tree of his daughter, much as he had done his mate’s.
She saw it all and waited for death to take her.
And yet instead of the never-ending blackness she expected, she had awoken to find this man slumped beside her, his eyes closed even as the rest of his face was obscured by a mask.
None of the other hunters she had ever encountered wore such a thing, and as she cast her mind back she recalled the brief glimpse of what lie beneath it.
He was not fair to look upon. In truth, his features were hard to describe. Surely she had been so blinded by pain and terror that she distorted a perfectly normal face into something macabre—but that did not explain the mask he currently wore.
Mairi glanced down at her fingers, recognising a subtle tingling in the tips that she had never experienced before.
And though his presence should have horrified her—should have made her creep away as best she could before he woke as she begged the elders to allow her to return—she almost wished to see if touching the few pale slivers of his flesh that were visible would somehow abate the feeling.
But before she could try it, his head suddenly jerked and his gaze fell upon her.
Her mouth felt dry as he stared, but it felt rude not to acknowledge him—especially not when she considered what he was to her now.
He did not respond to her greeting, only continued to blink at her. She had always thought her aptitude for man’s language was suitable, but he almost seemed as though he did not understand. So she tried again. “I am sorry if I caused offence.” Her heart clenched when she considered precisely why she had implored him to let her alone. She would cry later, she knew. She would weep for what she had lost, but for now she felt it important for her to come to know this man—her bond-mate.
Her apology seemed to shake him from his stupor, and she was relieved to find that her words proved intelligible. “What on earth are you apologising for, nymph?”
Her eyes widened. “When I told you not to touch me. Seeing as we are now sealed I do not want you to think I am angry.” Not for that. Not for any of it, really. He could not have known. But if he recognised her for what she truly was that meant he had...
She blushed deeply. “Was I pleasing to you?”
Her shoulder throbbed terribly but she could not feel any different elsewhere, aside from the tingling of her fingertips that continued to prove distracting. She did not know why she asked the question, but it somehow seemed important. If men believed that it was their right after catching a nymph to bed them, and he was now her bond-mate, perhaps if she had pleased him sufficiently he would prove kind and amiable in future.
He stared at her in astonishment, his eyes narrowing in... anger?
“You think that I raped you while you slept? That because you managed to get between my bow and my supper that I somehow wish you harm?”
Her head tilted. “Harm? But most of the men believe if you catch a nymph that is their right. As my bond-mate it is also your right.”
He laughed suddenly, the sound not at all the merry resonance she was used to. “You are not actually a nymph, girl, so why would that be my right? You are pretty I suppose, but not a mythical creature.”
The words stung, sharp and angry and though tears welled she told herself resolutely she should not allow herself to shed them. If she was to be bound to a human, why could it not be that sweet Aiden? He seemed to have great kindness in him.
And, if she could allow such honesty, her vanity was offended that he should only suppose her pretty. If she was to lose everyone she had ever loved, she should at the very least be allowed to comfort herself with her bond-mate! Not be ridiculed.
But despite her best efforts she felt wetness leak from her eyes and she brushed them away hurriedly, forgetting for a moment her injury. She hissed in pain, finally noticing the tight bandaging that concealed the wound. Mairi touched the fraying threads thoughtfully, noticing it was the same colour that the man wore.
She peeked at him once more, frowning at the realisation that he had torn a piece of his tunic so as to care for her.
Surely that meant he felt something for her.
She would cling to what hope she could. “Your tunic is torn.”
The man blinked, glancing downward at the ragged hem. “So it is. I am not in the habit of patching up young maidens in the woods. I used what I could,” he added, almost defensively.
She nodded, not feeling at all prepared to cope with a mate who bordered on discourteous. Her head felt muddled and her heart ached, not to mention her shoulder which still protested fiercely that she had not managed to be seen by one of the healers.
“I had thought you would be kinder.” Mairi had not meant to speak the words aloud, but to her horror she realised she had done so.
She was young yet to have been sealed, but whenever she had pictured her future life with a dryon he was always gentle and tender with her. This man seemed brash and cold—not at all what she would have chosen. Nymphs saved most of their affections for their mates. Simple touches between parents were encouraged to hold true the initial bonds, but it was only with their mates that they fully knew the physical comforts of another.
And this man did not seem as though he would ever be receptive to her desires.
But he was all she would ever have.
Her heart ached all the more.
He stiffened, rising to his feet. She rapidly remembered her previous thought that she had never seen one taller than he, and as he loomed above her she felt even smaller. She was slight for a dryad. Her tree had been a dogwood, not one of the larger and imposing trees that belonged to her kin, but one known for its beauty in springtime. She was not the strongest, nor the wisest. And before this man, she felt very weak and foolish indeed.
“I am sorry to disappoint you then, madam, but I would never have suggested otherwise. You obviously shall not perish so I shall leave you to find your way back to whatever family you separated from.”
The ache in her heart multiplied tenfold, and she clutched at it desperately even as she reached for him. “No! You do not understand!”
His eyes narrowed as he stared down at her. “I can unequivocally state that I have understood little since encountering you. But no maid would be wandering the woods alone so you are hardly my responsibility.”
There was the barest twitch at his throat that gave her hope that perhaps he was not as cruel-hearted as he seemed. “I can never return.”
He crossed his arms. “Why?”
She resented this. She resented that this man—her bond-mate—had ruined every dream she had since she was but a seedling. How many times had she imagined that her dryon would take her into his arms, press his forehead against hers as they stared at one another, simply absorbing the feeling of unity that only their sealing could provide?
And yet instead of such a gentle embrace, he was scowling at her and making her feel even more wretched.
Because with a startling revelation she realised he was perfectly serious.
He meant to leave her.
It never occurred to her that he would not feel it too—would be immune to the effects of the bond and would actually consider abandoning her all alone.
“Because you touched me. I told you not to! If you had but listened...” The tears gave way to the anger she felt, and she struggled to her feet.
She was a nymph, not quite fully grown, and she refused to be intimidated by the man who should protect her above all things. There must be some honour in him.
He scoffed. “So because a man such as me dared to help an injured girl you shall be shunned for all eternity? I pity you for your relations then, madam!”
How he could infuse such a title with such sarcastic ire she did not know.
Her thoughts strayed once more to sweet Aiden’s stuttered m’lady and wished not for the first time that it was he who had done this.
She took a calming breath as the racing of her heart only made the throbbing of her shoulder grow fiercer. And when she did her stomach gave the strangest of sounds and she looked down at in astonishment. “What was that?”
The man looked at her incredulously. “You are hungry. You have not eaten in nearly a day.”
Her head tilted curiously. “You can speak to it? What else did it say?”
He blinked at her. “I cannot tell if you are in earnest but I can assure you, I have little tolerance for ridiculous games.” With that he rifled through a bag at his side and pulled out a round... something, and held it out to her.
“What is it?” She inspected it closely and could see little bits of seeds and grains within it, but could not identify the rest.
“A biscuit. One of the few I have left,” he added begrudgingly. “I would have had meat to offer but someone interfered with my hunt. Eat it quickly and then we shall part ways.”
“I did not intend for you to pierce me! And I already apologised.” She tore off a crumb of the biscuit and eyed it warily before eventually placing it in her mouth. “I have never eaten before,” she murmured quietly, not truly to him.
She was entirely unprepared for him to stride quickly toward her as he began pulling at her hair, massaging fingers through it. For a moment she revelled in the thought that he finally felt something and was about to express his joy at their bonding, but the fingers were not at all tender and instead probed and searched—again, for what she did not know.
She was tired of not knowing.
“You must have injured your head when you fell. You cannot possibly be as foolish as you seem.”
The words stung her and she jerked away from him, her biscuit still clutched in her hands, the small piece strange and dry in her mouth though she swallowed it thickly. “The only injury I suffered was to my shoulder! Why must you be so cruel?”
Her anger was waning, and she sank against the grasses, wishing for nothing more than to be tucked away in her adar’s tree. Hers was not yet large enough to climb so she always found respite in his own sturdy branches. He would laugh from the forest floor, beseeching her to come down and speak with him, but she would eventually coax him to come settle with her amongst the large and steady limbs. Many a night was spent there, and she found herself crying at the loss.
He would be so lonely now.
And this was all her fault.
The man was staring at her again, this time looking flustered and ill at ease with her display of emotion. “What is your name?”she managed to ask between sobs.
Whether he acknowledged it or not, they were bound for the rest of their lives, and names were important.
Mairi’s own name was not a common one amongst the realm. Her adar had always said she took after her amé, as her mother had a compassion for the little human children she would meet. It was one such child that was her namesake as her mother had saved her from a blizzard one winter’s eve, leading the child’s mother to her daughter who had become lost in the woods.
Her father had been furious, reminding her of the dangers, but her amé had not relented.
And apparently from that moment onward she knew she wished for a little seedling of her own.
She died only a few seasons later, a fungus taking hold in her tree’s roots that could not be vanquished, no matter how the healers tried.
The man sighed, rifling through the bag once more, though she suspected he searched simply to avoid looking at her. “Garrick. Not that it is any concern of yours.”
Garrick. She tasted the name on her lips and decided she did not find it unpleasant. Her tears were abating, and to her deep surprise Garrick was holding out a scrap of cloth. “Dry your eyes, nymph. You will go home. You will explain that what transpired was no fault of your own. If they have any love for you at all they shall accept you.”
“Mairi,” she murmured. “That is my name, and it is of great concern to you that you know it.”
He gave no indication that he had heard her, but she held the cloth with trembling hands, grateful for this first sign of true courtesy.
Garrick rolled his eyes, though she still caught him glancing at her periodically. “They shall not, you know, and it is not from a lack of love. My adar loves me very much and he shall miss me terribly.”
She swallowed thickly, determined not to give way to more tears. “To bond with a human is forbidden. I should be dead...”
He stared at her disbelievingly. “They would kill you for being with me?”
She gasped, horrified at whatever barbaric culture he hailed from that such would be his immediate thought. “Of course not! But my tree... it should not have survived. I cannot live without my tree.”
Garrick huffed in annoyance. “You speak in riddles, nymph, and I do not appreciate it. Unless you speak plainly I shall take my leave.”
“You call me nymph and yet do not believe me! What more shall I do to prove it to you?”
Her fingers were still clutching the biscuit but she could not bring herself to take another bite—not while he was glaring with her barely veiled hostility. “Take me to this tree.”
She blanched. Of all the things for him to ask, it had to be what was most impossible. Yet that portion of her that recognised him as her mate pulsed with a desire to do as he asked, no matter the consequence, merely because he had asked it.
Mairi tried to remember the way to the High City. Her home was... North, was it not? She had crossed the stream, and...
Her mind groped for the familiar paths that led to her tree, the way she had known for the entirety of her life and found her memories muddled.
She dropped the biscuit on the forest floor and hurried over to a nearby birch, lacing her hand on the silvery trunk as she closed her eyes.
Where once she would have heard the gentle whispers of comfort from a friend, she was met with silence. While once it would have mingled with the cacophony of its kin as they made a path for her should she ever become lost, there was nothingness.
Mairi had never felt so alone.
And it horrified her that the words were true, not only from a sense of duty to protect her kind—where they still her kin, even now?—but instead because she could not find the way even if she made the attempt.
She knelt before the tree, her forehead pressed against the bark in a harsh mimicry of the affection she so long desired from her mate. She tried to speak to it, to recall the nymphlin speech that allowed for the communion with the trees and found that even that was thick and slow upon her tongue. Terror clutched at her throat threatening to drown her in its intensity as the magnitude of what had occurred became all the more clear.
She was alone.
She was losing all she had ever held dear.
And her bond-mate did not care.
There was rustling behind her and she found that Garrick had changed his tunic and had begun the process of donning the armour she had first seen him in. Each piece served as a barrier as her heart cried out to his, but he continued to pack away his things regardless of the despair she felt.
Any other mate would have felt it equally, yet hers either felt no such bond or simply did not care.
For then he released a low whistle and a horse emerged from the woods beyond. And she felt a numbness settle over her as he tied his bags to the saddle and turned to give her one last look. “Be safe, nymph. And tell no more lies.”
And then he was gone, and she gave in to the utter desolation that followed.